Fight gives hope to net neutrality advocates
Net neutrality advocates are feeling emboldened by the outcry over the GOP’s repeal of internet privacy regulations, viewing it as an opportunity to harness grassroots support for their cause.
“I think for Republicans and the ISPs who pushed them into this, this is a short-term victory,” said Matt Wood, policy director of the advocacy group Free Press. “But as they won this battle, they might have hurt their chances in the war, because they have reawakened people … to how it really isn’t a partisan issue.”
The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) privacy rules, which were passed in October, would have required internet service providers to get permission from customers before using their data for advertising.
President Trump signed a bill Monday eliminating those rules and preventing the FCC from ever implementing similar ones.
The repeal has triggered an intense backlash.
Privacy and consumer advocates railed against the move. Late-night comedians mocked the GOP, and Democratic groups have launched campaign attacks against Republicans who they say sold out their constituents to internet service providers.
Advocates for net neutrality say they are encouraged by the widespread interest in the privacy rules, viewing it as a springboard from which they can rally support.
“I suspect that net neutrality repeal is right around the corner, and I think that anger is going to continue to spin,” Gigi Sohn, who was a counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and who had a hand in crafting the privacy rules, said in an interview last week.
A recent YouGov/Huffington Post online poll, taken before Trump signed the privacy bill, found that 71 percent of adults supported allowing the FCC’s net neutrality rules to go into effect. Seventy-two percent of both Republicans and Democrats supported the rules.
The net neutrality rules were passed in 2015, under Wheeler, and prohibit internet service providers from discriminating against web traffic to certain sites. To codify the rules, the FCC reclassified those service providers as telecommunications companies, moving them from the Federal Trade Commission’s authority to the FCC’s.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — who was appointed to the FCC by President Obama and made chairman under Trump — has repeatedly voiced his opposition to net neutrality, saying the rules inhibit private-sector innovation and growth. He is expected to use his power on the FCC mount to attack the regulations.
Under Wheeler, the FCC used its newfound authority from net neutrality to establish the privacy standards. It did so over the staunch opposition of the telecom industry and internet companies, who feared it would set a precedent for broader regulations.
Congress would likely have a much harder time repealing the net neutrality rules than the privacy rules.
The net neutrality regulations cannot be repealed under the Congressional Review Act because they were issued more than six months ago. As a result, repealing the rules would likely be a long legislative process and require some Democratic support.
Repealing net neutrality is also likely to attract intense public scrutiny. When the FCC was considering the net neutrality rules in 2014, it was flooded with nearly 4 million comments, a record for the commission.
Sohn said that she sees parallels in the battles over net neutrality and broadband privacy, arguing that they’re both arguments about how much control telecom companies should have over users’ online experiences.
She argued that eliminating the rules could lead to a greater public awareness about what Congress and even the FCC are doing about net neutrality.
“It’s priming the pump of an enormous wave of grassroots activity on net neutrality,” Sohn said. “We’re not going to start on square one, we’re going to start on square 10.”